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Baseline assessments: why small NGOs should be doing them

Updated: Jan 28, 2021

What are baseline assessments, and why should NGOs do them?

Most NGOs are well aware of impact assessments and impact stories (which are not the same thing! I’ll cover this topic in another article). But, for some reason, baseline assessments often fly under the radar. Why is that? Well, first, we need to understand what a baseline assessment is.

Social change—real social change—is nuanced, complicated, and slow-moving. The work we’re doing now might not yield real systemic change for decades. Sometimes, we might not even see it in our lifetimes. It can all feel a bit overwhelming, but it shouldn't be seen as impossible. Big significant systemic change comes as a result of smaller actions.

Today, I’m going to focus on one of the small actions. We can call these “activities”. These activities are what an NGO does in their day-to-day work, it’s what staff can directly control, and this will be the short-term change that will someday, hopefully, be combined with other activities from a wide range of actors to create meaningful and sustainable change. Imagine activities like small tributary streams feeding into the larger impact, the river.

Now, to jump to an entirely new metaphor, we can imagine each activity like a race—along the way we’ll pass milestones as we race towards the finish line, the “objective”. Therefore, to do the activity, we need a starting line. That’s the baseline assessment.

There are a lot of different ways to measure the baseline, which would require a deep dive into research design, but essentially, baseline assessments tell you the reality now. Then, when you begin your activity, you are hoping to create a small improvement on that baseline. Therefore, baseline assessments should outline:

  • The current situation and it take time to explore the different facets, including root causes of the problem and possible intersectional causes and effects. Data and inputs from a wide range of stakeholders should be collected and analysed.

  • Approaches that have already been attempted. Were they successful or unsuccessful? Why? Were there any unintended consequences?

Intuitive, right? Dare I say, common sense? But in my experience, few NGOs invest seriously in conducting a baseline assessment. Why?

  1. Focusing on impact: I believe the main reason why baseline assessments are chronically underfunded is because NGOs are so focused on the impact they want to achieve and their vision for the future they want to create. That’s one reason I love NGOs—their commitment to creating change and making things better on a practical level. However, it’s difficult to measure growth and impact without first establishing that initial starting point.

  2. Assuming we already know the context: for many of us who live and work in the communities NGOs serve, we have an intuitive grasp of the problems and what the community needs. This intuition, however, can often lead us astray. Even though we know the community, we often live in smaller bubbles within the community—people of similar ages, socioeconomic status, type of work, and political viewpoint tend to flock together. Without research and statistical analysis, we tend to focus on anecdotal evidence and fail to see the bigger picture of what is happening across all segments of society.

  3. Confusing the symptoms for the disease: often, the ‘problem’ we see is merely a symptom of a deeper underlying issue. For example, I might see someone experiencing homelessness in my community. Still, I wouldn’t have a deep understanding of the route causes or how to best address these problems because homelessness is the sign of a deeper problem, such as inflated housing prices, lack of affordable healthcare, or a changing job market that knocks people off the housing ladder. Building a temporary shelter would address the symptom, not the cause.

  4. Prioritising other things: in general, NGOs are chronically underfunded, which means they make tough choices about what activities they can undertake. Baseline assessments are not flashy or photogenic, and they’re not going to attract the support of donors in the same way other activities might. So, they often end up on the backburner when push comes to shove. And, unfortunately, all too often for NGOs, push does come to shove.

  5. Taking a top-down approach: many NGOs are focused on appealing to their donor base. This means speaking directly to the interests of the donors and creating emotionally-driven campaigns to attract support, which often results in research and statistics taking a back seat to the emotional narrative. Often, that’s the right approach to take because the reality is that people give to causes they find meaningful (see point 4 about NGOs being chronically underfunded). However, that focus on appealing to donors can mean NGOs aren’t significantly addressing the issues they’d set out to solve.

So, where do we go from here? We know baseline assessments are essential, and we understand why they’re often not done, but how can we encourage more NGOs to promote and invest in baseline assessments?

  1. Use existing research: academic papers aren’t perfect—they may be outdated, or they might have been conducted in a slightly different context, but a lot of research has already been done. If you find a paper useful, try reaching out to the author for additional insights.

  2. Join a researcher network: researchers often partner with NGOs to conduct studies. A partnership can be a win-win for both the researcher who wants access to the field and connections with local community members, while NGOs can use the results of the study to design their strategies better. Try the Research4Impact network to learn more about how to partner with researchers and academic institutions.

  3. Hire a consultant: while this can be an additional cost, it can be worth it because NGOs will almost certainly need baseline numbers to demonstrate impact over time. While regular NGO staff can do a baseline assessment, it’s important to consider the opportunity cost of taking staff members away other activities. Bringing in outside help to conduct a baseline assessment should be seen as an investment that will pay itself back over time. A baseline assessment gives the NGO a better measuring stick to understand their impact, which can help tell a better (and more accurate) story to donors.

Has your NGO done a baseline assessment? Do you have any tips to add to this list? Do you have an example of a baseline assessment that has knocked it out of the park? Let me know in the comments below!

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